At last, the long promised “Bathrooms of Antarctica” post.
Once upon a time, in the dawn of the new millennium when Geocities and Angelfire sites still littered the internet, I came across a brilliant website, now lost to the ages, entirely dedicated to one man’s exploration of the world via it’s bathrooms. Now, you might not be terribly impressed by a series of pictures of porcelain from exotic locales (especially since the view doesn’t change all that much in bathrooms) but I took away a valuable lesson that complimented my interest in Urban Exploring. If you want an excuse to go visit any given place, it doesn’t get better than “I need to pee”.
This is how I came up with a new rule for myself: every day, use at least one toilet you’ve never used before. I have some friends with shy bladders or crippling cleanliness-focused OCD to whom this sounds like absolute torture, but it has served me well. Following this rule, I managed to learn the UC Berkeley exterior and interior within a matter of weeks. By the time a year had passed, I shocked employees that had been at Cal for decades with the ease that I traced the fastest/easiest path in three dimensional space between destinations. Just call me the Human Hamiltonian.
I’ve used urinals that were barely more than a funnel soldered into a joint on a drainpipe in mechanical chases. I’ve stepped into heavy oak paneled and door stalls with massive works of porcelain that are best described as “eliminatory edifices”, not toilets. I’m impressed with the utilitarian simplicity that is the New Zealand bog, where you’re standing on grating from the time you enter the bathroom and the entire floor below you is the drain. So, pick a wall and the they only thing you really need to manage is not urinating on your fellow patrons. For some folks this easier said than done, so it pays to be alert.
Where it gets interesting is when you discover a toilet you didn’t expect, such as the one in the middle of the old power plant for South Pole Station so the person on watch who can’t leave can still take care of business (the aforementioned funnel attached to a drain line). Would you recognize such a convenience if you saw it? I heard numerous tales of westerners who achieved extreme discomfort before realizing the hole in the floor was the toilet when visiting Southeast Asia, not a place where the toilet was stolen from. When water is precious, you don’t waste it on such things as flushing.
Of course, at South Pole Station, water is a luxury because it has to be melted using precious fuel. Every time you flush the toilet, you’ve effectively sent your business down the drain with JP-8 jet propulsion fuel. For this reason, the new elevated station has .5L per flush toilets and the waterless urinals that seem to be increasingly popular in California in years since I returned in 2003. But what about the previous iterations of the station and what of the remote buildings?
The first thing to know is that running water only happens if you have liquid water and pipes sufficiently insulated to bring it to you…and take sewage away. This is a problem in the Dakotas, much less Antarctica. In McMurdo, they get away with elevated insulated pipes but South Pole has to put all their pipes will under the ice for extra insulation; the constant -80F of 20′ below the surface is preferable to the variable -8 to -108F of the surface, plus they’d get buried by blowing snow anyway. You’ve seen wrapped pipes before I’m sure, but please look at the sewage line for South Pole Station. That is a 4″ line with 10″ thick of insulation and then the corrugated pipe. It was just barely enough to keep liquid water flowing in and out of the buildings of the central station, from the meltwater pumping well to the previous played out melt well that now serves as sewage bulb. What I’m getting at here is that flush toilets are a luxury at the South Pole and always have been because Fuel Is Life and how much of that do you want to spend on water you don’t absolutely need to survive?
The answer is to take advantage of the environment. During the summer, there are portable solar toilets that are transported around the station on skids and planted near the worksites they’re needed most. 24hrs of low angle sunlight means that you can blacken the all the walls and be guaranteed that some part of the outhouse is getting enough sun to keep things melted. And let me tell you, as a toilet seat, 2″ thick heavy foam insulation is damn comfy. They work particularly well at Pole as there are no storms that to obscure the sunlight; at McMurdo one good hurricane-blizzard (AKA Herbies) and they’ll freeze solid without the sun, probably get buried under snow for good measure.
For the remote camps, where you’re just living in a tent for a couple weeks in the summer, you still have to have a toilet. The solution here isn’t much different than a Coleman camp toilet. The good news is that smell quickly stops being an issue as everything freezes. For men, we have the added benefit of the makeshift urinal made from a 55gal drum and a funnel.
During the winter, we used the same approach at the out buildings with the plastic bags placed outside to quickly freeze. NOTE: It’s is very important to remember that you did this. Otherwise, someone will receive a very unpleasant surprise when they clear away some snow later on.
It is worth noting that the first two iterations of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (the IGY ’57 station, AKA Old Pole, and “The Dome” in 1975) were built by the Navy. As such, they were able to take certain liberties with the comfort of the station crew. When you take into account that the no women wintered over at Pole until 1979 and none even visited prior to 1969, no segregated bathroom facilities were needed and even the main station were spartan. Interestingly, in terms of design, they’re not all that different from Roman latrines. There’s not all that much photo evidence handy of life when Old Pole was active, but the base is still there, 80′ under the snow and ice for people brave enough to go in and ignore the US Antarctic Program/Raytheon edict strictly forbidding entrance on pain of removal from the continent, forfeiture of pay & bonus, and ban from future return.
So, let us just say that these photos came into my possession. Let’s not discuss how I got them. Old Pole was abandoned because the weight of ice & snow overhead splintered a central support 8×8 timber. It takes a lot to break those. I’m to understand that when it buckled with a bang, the whole station heard and it sent out wooden shrapnel in manner that would have staked a whole platoon of vampires as an area effect weapon. That was 30+ years ago and the weight overhead has only increased, so enter at your peril. [UPDATE: Old Pole was imploded a while ago for safety.]
The point I’m getting at here is that everybody, all of humanity, every day, poops. There isn’t a society anywhere on Earth that doesn’t have to deal with the repercussions of this, from the most remote tribe of the Amazon, to the financial houses of the City of London, to the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Any place you go, you have a chance to learn how someone else goes, to build that little bit of empathy. And, on a practical level, it is a chance to learn the place you’re at in great detail.